Snappers and Gunners: behind the scenes at the Fox Talbot Museum and the Royal Artillery Museum

on Wednesday, 31 May 2017. Posted in Museums

One of the best things about my job is visiting different museums around the county, seeing behind the scenes and finding out about all the exciting things that are happening. Last week I was lucky enough to go to two museums and get a peek at things not normally seen by visitors.

First up was a visit to the Fox Talbot Museum in Lacock, with the Wiltshire Museum Group. The Museum tells the story of the history of photography, from the very first photographic chemical processes to the modern smartphone. It also celebrates the life and work of William Henry Fox Talbot who lived in Lacock Abbey. A Victorian pioneer of photography, Fox Talbot created the earliest surviving photographic negative, taken in 1835, of a window of the Abbey. Upstairs there’s a gallery with a changing temporary exhibition programme, which explores photography as an art form.

The Fox Talbot Museum
‘Plants in a different light’ by Jan Ramscar is the currently temporary exhibition at the Fox Talbot Museum. It features botanical projection photograms, in the spirit of those created by Fox Talbot himself.

Curator Roger Watson, told the group about a current project to acquire and manage the Fenton Collection. Thousands of photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries were collected by James Fenton, along with a wide range of photographic technologies – including cameras, exposure meters and stereoscopic viewers. He displayed them in his own Museum of Photography on the Isle of Man, before donating them to the Museum of the Moving Image in 1986. All the items had been in storage since the museum closed in 1999 and last year the British Film Institute had donated them to the National Trust’s Fox Talbot Museum.

Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Prism Fund  the project has brought the collection to Lacock, where it is being catalogued and cared for, including being re-housed in a newly created store.

Store in a barn

The new store is built inside one of the traditional buildings in Lacock – from the outside you wouldn’t be able to tell what’s kept within. A room has been built inside the barn to house the objects. This is insulated to help keep the environment stable and the conditions the best possible to ensure the preservation of all the treasures kept within.

The new store
Volunteers Ros and Annette cataloguing photographs from the Fenton Collection at the Fox Talbot Museum. In the public area of the museum, they are happy to chat to visitors about what they’re doing and help people understand how museum collections are looked after.

At the end of the week I visited the new homes of the Royal Artillery Museum. The Royal Artillery (The Gunners) Regimental Headquarters moved to Larkhill on Salisbury Plain in 2008, and the Museum will follow with plans to create a purpose-built home, the Salisbury Plain Heritage Centre, underway. Designated as having an outstanding collection by Arts Council England, items are currently in storage following the closure of their Firepower! Museum in Woolwich last year.

The Gunners’ headquarters in Larkhill.

The huge logistical task of moving all of the collections has been successfully completed and for the time being, their objects are being lovingly cared for in four locations around the county. In a drive that ticked most of the boxes in the iSpy book of Wiltshire (think prehistoric stones, tractors, lush green fields and tanks), I got to visit three of them to look at their amazing collections.

Firstly was a tour around their hanger in Wroughton, where some of their larger items are stored. A ‘large item’ in another museum might be a table or other piece of furniture, here it’s more likely to be an enormous gun or tank!

Larger items from the Royal Artillery Museum are stored in an old aircraft hanger on the Science Museum site in Wroughton.

Next was a trip to another site, this one in Upavon, where the slightly less large, slightly more delicate items are kept.

Upavon store
One of the more unusual items in the collection – a late 18th century Indian mortar, cast in the shape of a tiger.
Microclimates have been constructed for the more delicate items in order to control the humidity levels they are subjected to, helping to prevent metal corrosion and other conservation problems.

The two sites are set up so that staff have the room and conditions to work on the objects, carrying out conservation work to make sure they are kept in tip top condition. They are in the process of recruiting volunteers to help them with various aspects of their work, both those with specialist knowledge and those who require training.

Our final stop of the day was the home of the Gunners in Larkhill, where the Museum has its administrative base and is in the process of setting up their archive. Approximately 10% of their archive records have been moved so far – around 200 linear metres of records! The archive is now open to the public two days a week, with appointments bookable by contacting their Archivist Sian Mogridge This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The archive at Larkhill. Visiting the second beautifully organised store of the week – guaranteed to warm the cockles of any museum professional’s heart!

One week and two fabulous museums with outstanding collections, working hard to preserve their items for future generations.

Heather Perry, Conservation and Museum Manager


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